The rule is simple here. The earlier you send your gifts, the cheaper the service. It is already too late to use Royal Mail’s lowest-priced option for most overseas destinations but there are still plenty of other services including standard, international tracked and signature to choose from. The cutoff dates vary by country. For example, it is 1 December for Australia and New Zealand, 10 December for the US, Canada and Poland, and 14 December for France, so consult the Royal Mail website.
Within the UK the latest recommended date for Royal Mail’s economy service is 16 December but, again, there are more expensive services with later cutoffs. Its special delivery guaranteed service runs until 23 December but remember, postal workers plan six days of strike action in December, including on Christmas Eve, so this isn’t the year to wing it.
View image in fullscreenA postbox given a knitted festive makeover. The cutoff dates for Christmas post vary by country. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock
If you decide to use a courier you have more time. To send to Australia with a courier, pack and post by 20 December. A last-minute parcel can make it under a Christmas tree in the US if you send it on 23 December, as long as you choose the right service.
Compare costs with parcel brokers
If you are sending a small parcel, the Post Office is usually the best place to start.
For heavier parcels, the cheapest way is likely to be to use a broker, or discount parcel comparison service, such as ParcelHero, ParcelCompare or ParcelBroker. “These [services] buy space in bulk with all the major couriers, then pass on the savings to customers, so it’s cheaper than if you book direct,” says David Jinks, the head of consumer research at ParcelHero.
For a 3kg parcel going to Spain, for example, Royal Mail’s Parcelforce service quotes £37.02 for its cheapest service (Parcelforce Worldwide Global Value). Through ParcelBroker, the cheapest service costs £23.70 – even though the parcel would be delivered by the same courier, Parcelforce.
Meanwhile, a 3kg parcel going to the US with Parcelforce would cost £48.25 for the cheapest, untracked service, and £78.55 for a one-day service. By comparison, ParcelHero’s cheapest option would be £33.87, with USPS.com, and next-day delivery would cost £57.73 (delivered by FedEx).
Get cover for gifts
Whoever you send with, it is best to insure the contents, says Shelley Merrick, the senior trading manager at the Post Office: “Royal Mail covers up to £20 for standard deliveries, £50 for signed-for deliveries and up to £500 for special deliveries – you can increase this to £2,500 if you need to.” Select carefully so you are not out of pocket if the items get lost or damaged.
If you do send items via the Post Office, as soon as they have started their journey they are the responsibility of Royal Mail. “We have the forms you need in the Post Office but you should contact Royal Mail about issues,” Merrick says. If you use a broker the contract you have is with them, not the courier, so they are the point of contact in the event of a problem.
View image in fullscreenThe Post Office advises insuring the contents when sending a Christmas parcel abroad. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock
Find out about paperwork and costs
Customs forms are mandatory for gifts sent to a country outside the UK, except when sending items from Northern Ireland to the EU. Always tick the “gift” box and be as detailed as you can in your description of the contents and give accurate values for each item, explains a spokesperson for ParcelBroker. “Just writing ‘assorted gifts’ is unfortunately not going to be acceptable. Even ‘clothes’ isn’t an acceptable description; you need to be specific. So it’s ‘men’s cotton socks’, not just ‘socks’.”
If you are sending to the EU and the value of a gift is more than €45 (£38.60), it will be subject to VAT and a clearance fee – which may be charged to the recipient, taking a little of the sparkle out of your Christmas gift. If it is more than €150, you may also be subject to customs duties, on top of those costs.
View image in fullscreenRoyal Mail says do not add bows or ribbons to the outer wrapping of Christmas parcels you want to send by post because such things will get caught in the machines and the package will be damaged. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy
Since mail is machine-sorted, parcels can get knocked about a bit on their travels. Royal Mail recommends wrapping carefully with padded envelopes or strong containers, and plenty of polystyrene chips or bubble wrap. Merrick says: “Don’t add anything like bows or ribbons to the outer wrapping of your parcel – these might look pretty but will get caught in the machines and the package will be damaged.” Make the address very clear, include a postcode, and always add a sender’s address, in case the item needs to be returned.
Use a retailer’s shipping service
If you can buy gift items from one store, and send them together to one address, you will invariably save on delivery costs by using the retailer’s delivery service. John Lewis, for example, offers free UK delivery for purchases more than £50, and otherwise charges £4.50. However, John Lewis no longer offers overseas delivery. House of Fraser, meanwhile, will ship within the UK and internationally.
But don’t get caught out by delivery dates, warns Jinks: “Christmas is a Sunday this year. If you are ordering a gift to be delivered direct from a store, be aware that lots don’t deliver at the weekend, so many retailer’s final ordering deadlines will be a day earlier than last year.”
Check the regulations
UK and international mail networks are subject to a number of safety regulations, and the Post Office has a list of items that are prohibited or restricted. These include popular (but flammable) gifts such as perfume and aftershave, which can only be sent within the UK if they are less than 150ml in volume, and can’t be shipped abroad at all. Nail varnish pots up to 30ml can be posted within the UK but again these can’t be sent abroad.
Christmas crackers cause confusion, since their snaps are technically explosive. But as long as they are fully assembled (jokes and paper hats and all) and in their original packaging, you can post them overseas. As ever, different countries have different rules for items, so it’s important to check, or your gift may not reach its new home safely.
Check the rules on food and drink
If you are planning on sending a taste of British Christmas overseas, you should also check the rules; the postal naughty list includes various food and drinks items. Perishable goods, which need to be refrigerated, for example, are not allowed in the mail internationally but can be sent within the UK if properly packed.
View image in fullscreenThinking of sending a homemade Christmas pudding abroad? It may not be as easy as you think. Photograph: foodfolio/Alamy
Anyone who still has one of last year’s Christmas puddings in the cupboard knows that this delicacy is far from perishable – but even so, sending a homemade pudding or cake abroad may be risky, Jinks says: “I’m afraid the problem is, if you send homemade cake that’s not in packaging, with a full ingredient list, for a lot of countries, that’s not going to be acceptable.”
Shipping Christmas foods overseas can be made easier by using a dedicated service, such as British Corner Shop, an online shop selling a range of foods that are hard to find overseas – but individual items are often more expensive than they would be in standard UK supermarkets.
You can send alcoholic drinks with alcohol by volume of less that 24%, such as beer, wine and champagne, both within the UK and abroad (again check individual county rules). If you were thinking of sending a bottle of whisky to someone overseas, think again, as sending spirits abroad is against the regulations. You can, however, do this within the UK.